Gambling with the future

November 9, 2006
By Dale Johnson
(Archive)

It is more than 11 years since Jack Walker's millions launched Blackburn Rovers to the pinnacle of the English game.

Alan Shearer, Jack Walker
GettyImages / PictureAlan Shearer celebrates with Jack Walker after Blackburn won the Premiership in 1995

The unfashionable Lancashire club hadn't graced the top flight since England won the World Cup in 1966 before being promoted to become founder members of the Premier League in 1992.

Rovers' benefactor didn't stop there, signing the legendary strike partnership of £3.5million Alan Shearer and £5million Chris Sutton (at the time a British transfer record) and the SAS plundered 49 goals between them in pipping Manchester United to the championship in the 1994/95 campaign.

It's the quintessential example of a rich fan taking charge of the club they love and bankrolling them to ultimate success.

Dave Whelan has had similar success with Wigan Athletic, turning a team which until 2004 had never even plied its trade above the third tier into one which is able to hold its own among the Premiership's elite and reached the League Cup final last season.

Sir Jack Hayward was not quite so successful with his money at Wolverhampton Wanderers, though they did finally make the promised land for one season in 2003/04.

The picture is changing in English football. Rather than rich supporters, offshore investment is on the increase with an eye on the short term rather than stability for the future.

With the likes of Manchester United, Chelsea and Arsenal in a different financial league, helped immeasurably by the millions which flooded in following the advent of the Premiership, the division's smaller clubs are no longer able to compete as they used to.

Harsh lessons have been learnt from the first decade of the Premiership, when over-spending and financial suicide was rife. Smaller cubs have been forced to become more businesslike in order to balance the books, but that rarely wins trophies or captures the imagination of the fanbase.

Supporters crave new signings - a strengthening of the team in the quest for glory. Whereas the Glazers were far from welcomed by Manchester United fans, a club which has enjoyed unparalleled success since the Premier League began, other fans have not been so confrontational.

The most recent foreign investor to arrive was Randy Lerner, with the American taking over from Doug Ellis at Aston Villa. The Midlands club have been starved of any modicum of success for such an extended period of time, and have been crying out for a new owner, that foreign investment was seen as a positive rather than negative. Granted, Lerner did not set Villa awash with debt as the Glazers have at Old Trafford.

Foreign investment is increasingly being accepted as the only way that clubs outside of the elite can hope to improve and evolve, to keep supporters interested and avoid increasing empty seats within stadiums.

However, the need for immediate glory may be masking the possible troubles further down the line when these unknown faces either grow tired of football or choose to move on to another venture.

While the likes of Milan Mandaric have a clear interest in the sport and are able to identify with supporters, can the same be said of others arriving from abroad?

As clubs move from being an open organisation where every face is known on the board to private ownership many clubs could see the fans lose any voice they had. That's fine when results are good but hard times bring disgruntled voices - the kind of voices such people may not be willing to either listen to or answer.

Randy Lerner
GettyImages / StuForsterRandy Lerner: Aston Villa fans hope the American can transform their fortunes

Few know what lies around the corner under new ownership, even less when the interested party has made his money elsewhere in the world and who may have different ideals and intentions. Alan Pardew rightly raised concerns regarding the loss of West Ham United's tradition and style as Icelandic businessman Eggert Magnusson and Iranian-born Kia Joorabchian fight it out for control.

Once a club's hierarchy has retreated into its proverbial shell post-takeover the chances of an audience with those in power will be slim.

The modern day overseas investor will not be doing it for the love of the club but to make money. They know success brings cash riches but not every team can be successful and that leaves the concern that a number of clubs could be left in financial ruin when these investors walk away. There is a real question about who will be left to pick up the pieces.

At present Manchester United, Chelsea, Portsmouth, Aston Villa and Fulham are in foreign ownership but that trend seems likely to spread quickly with West Ham on the brink of making it a third of England's top flight clubs.

Reading may follow as John Majedski has spoken of his wish to hand over the reins after leading the club into the top flight with astute planning and sound financial management. With a recently-built stadium which is ready for expansion, a sizeable catchment area and Premiership football inquisitive eyes will be cast over the Berkshire club.

Liverpool, Everton, Man City and Newcastle are also thought to be attracting interest.

Arsenal boss Arsene Wenger shares concerns over the future of the game in this country. He commented: 'This trend [for foreign ownership] does worry me. Generally you want the clubs to be in control of their own destiny. If you suddenly have 20 foreign investors who buy 20 English clubs you are in danger.

'The manager is foreign, the players are foreign, and you need to draw a line. England doesn't control it any more. I feel the soul of football in this country is first granted by the owners of the clubs. Here, for example, at Arsenal I feel I am really at an English club.

'Traditionally the people who owned the clubs were first and foremost supporters. If that ceases to be the case then the clubs lose something.'

It's not a xenophobic notion that English people should be in control of English clubs, it's more a concern of what lies ahead in the long term and a loss of identity and the long-standing heritage.

In the past clubs have truly been part of the community, run and staffed by local people for the fans in that area. But long gone is the day when a football club would take the vast majority of its players from its own town. Now a team is lucky to have a couple of players they can truly call homegrown.

Is the new management of these teams going have any real consideration for what the fans in the community want, what the club stands for or how it conducts itself in the public eye?

The greater consideration is to make the club more competitive, and the way they do that is not just through their own money but, for the most part, by raising ticket prices and becoming an aggressive commercial entity.

If it brings results and improved performances is that such a bad thing? We won't know until ten years down the line when the unknown faces have gone and the fans are again left to pick up the pieces.

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